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NASA names headquarters building after agency's first Black female engineer

NASA names headquarters building after agency's first Black female engineer
© NASA Photo

NASA honored Mary W. Jackson, the agency’s first Black female engineer, at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., on Friday by naming its headquarters building after her.

Jackson, who was portrayed by Janelle Monae in the 2016 hit film “Hidden Figures,” began working for the agency in 1951 at its then-segregated West Area Computing Unit at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. She became an engineer in 1958 and received the agency’s senior-most engineering title in 1979.

Later in her career, the mathematician and aerospace engineer also headed up programs that influenced the recruitment and advancement of women at the agency in areas spanning science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

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Jackson, who died in 2005 at the age of 83, was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal two years ago. Her work, along with that of other Black women at the space agency that helped launch astronaut John Glenn into orbit in the 1960s, drew national attention when it was written about in Margot Lee Shetterly's 2016 book “Hidden Figures,” which was later adapted into the blockbuster film.

During Friday's ceremony, acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said Jackson personified the agency’s “spirit of persevering against all odds, providing inspiration and advancing science and exploration.”

“There is no denying that she faced innumerable challenges in her work, work that would eventually help send the first Americans to space,” he said.

“She published a dozen papers. … She worked to improve commercial aircraft, analyzing data from wind tunnel experiments and real-world flight aircraft experiments,” Jurczyk continued, noting that her work with “other human computers, many of them Black women, not only turned around the space race, but also galvanized imaginations around the world as to what we can achieve.”

Jurczyk said the naming of the headquarters after Jackson ensures “she is a hidden figure no longer.”

Jackson’s granddaughter, Wanda Jackson, and other family members attended the event, along with NASA Langley center director Clayton Turner, retired NASA engineer Christine Darden, who was also portrayed in Shetterly’s book, and artist Tenbeete Solomon.

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Turner said Jackson “enabled the hiring and promotion of a new generation of female mathematicians, engineers, and scientists” and called her “a pioneer in diversity and inclusion in policy, yes, but even more importantly, in action.”

"She made a very special effort to meet these young aerospace engineers, to welcome them, to show them hospitality, and to give them advice,” Darden said while recounting Jackson’s mentorship to new African American employees and others.

“She was that type of person who would do anything for anybody, no questions asked. Whatever you needed, whether it was finance, whether it was food, whether it was love, whether it was a place to live,” Wanda Jackson said.

The event also included video remarks individuals like Rep. Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottDemocrats target Trump methane rule with Congressional Review Act Senators eye rollback of Trump methane rule with Congressional Review Act To Build Back Better, Biden must invest in modern apprenticeship system MORE (D-Va.), historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., rapper and actress Eve and NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson.

Scott said he met Jackson in the early 1970s. At the time he said he “kinda knew” Jackson worked at NASA, but added that the engineer was a “hidden figure in terms of the contributions she made to the space program.”

“President John F. Kennedy said something like, a nation reveals itself not only by those it produces, but also by those it honors, and those it remembers. Naming this building after Mary Jackson reveals a lot about our country,” Scott said.

Wilson said she hopes the new name “inspires young girls, and in particular young girls of color, to consider a STEM field as a career.”

Yolanda Shea, an atmospheric scientist at the Langley Research Center, unveiled the sign for the headquarters along with members of Jackson’s family at the end of the ceremony.

The move comes roughly two years after the agency renamed the street in front of the headquarters to “Hidden Figures Way.”